September 18, 1894 (a Tuesday)

Education

On this date, the trial committee in the case of Professor Richard T. Ely submitted its final report to the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin. The report, unanimously adopted, exonerated Ely, and heralded the board’s devotion to academic freedom:

As Regents of a university with over a hundred instructors supported by nearly two millions of people who hold a vast diversity of views regarding the great questions which at present agitate the human mind, we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary. Such a course would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true. This would cut our curriculum down to very small proportions. We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

A plaque at Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin

The outcome of the Ely trial, and especially the proclamation of academic freedom, were given wide publicity by the press. Despite occasional periods of turmoil in the subsequent history of the University of Wisconsin, the declaration was never officially repudiated. Notably, when the Wisconsin Class of 1910 voted to present to the University a plaque bearing the last sentence of the regents’ statement, the regents accused the Class of being influenced by radicals and of joining with them in attacking regent policies. Five years later the plaque was accepted and placed at the entrance of the main university building.

Years later Richard T. Ely could pridefully refer to the Regents’ report as:

…that famous pronunciamento of academic freedom which has been a beacon light in higher education in this country, not only for Wisconsin, but for all similar institutions, from that day to this. Their declaration on behalf of academic freedom … has come to be regarded as part of the Wisconsin Magna Charta …

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